just different dialects... but different languages - Popwatch
N°10 - Winter-Spring 1999 / An interview with Robert
Wyatt by Dave Cross
NOT JUST DIFFERENT DIALECTS... BUT DIFFERENT LANGUAGES
interview with Robert Wyatt by Dave Cross
The way he sees
it, there are two different Robert Wyatt.
The first was Robert Wyatt the bi-ped. As late-60s guideposts
of British avant garde freak culture, the Soft Machine
had few peers and certainly no rivals. A necessary ingredient
to all great rock bands is tension and infighting, without
which you wind up with a rather bland end product. There
was an overabundance of tension in Soft Machine (whose
great name certainly outlived the effectiveness of the
band itself) and most of those involved can't look back
at their tenure with fondness. Few members of the Softs
ever transcended being a "former Soft Machine member".
Luckily, Wyatt was first and foremost in distancing himself
from his former band - a move that would allow him to
go from flower-child freak to far-left political advocate
with credibility intact.
After being booted his band (still a source of much bitterness
for him), Wyatt formed Matching Mole. At that point, perhaps
not distanced far enough from his former unit (indeed,
the name Matching Mole was a pun drawn from the French
translation of Soft Machine), the Mole was not the greatest
financial or critical success. Wyatt folded the first
version and was in the process of reforming a more compatible
Matching Mole when he fell out a window, breaking his
back, and permanently winding up in a wheelchair.
The second Robert Wyatt emerged in 1974 with the release
of his fully realized lyrical, political, and musical
vision. Although Rock Bottom was actually his second solo
record, by all accounts it was the perfect debut of the
fully mature Robert Wyatt. Intense, harrowing, and introspective,
the record was a critical success, and soon Robert found
himself on the English charts with a couple of successfully,
designed and executed singles. As Robert would later say,
"I'm a girl who likes to say yes".
Soon after, punk rock would rear its ugly head. Rather
than take the reactionary view of many of his former colleagues,
Wyatt embraced the post-punk culture and worked with some
of the leading lights of post-punk U.K. Although it was
never meant to last as a permanent document, Wyatt's work
of the early 1980s is both politically vitriolic ans musically
superb. No thinly veiled political art rock hinting at
Communist orientation, Robert's work for Rough Trade is
direct and personal. It's as if he's singing those songs
just for you; perhaps his most endearing and long-lasting
There are always long gaps in the recorded history of
Robert Wyatt. It's as if he realizes no one will ever
forget about him, or else he'll reinvent himself to a
brand new audience whenever he decided to return. Whatever
the reason, the 90s have only seen two new Wyatt releases
so far (there were two compilations as well). His latest,
Shleep, is a superb romp through many of Robert's old
musical playgrounds with cutting-edge jazzbos bumping
heads with pop superstar understatement. But don't think
for a second that all the high-profile guest stars or
superbly glossed production can overshadow. Mr. Wyatt
himself. He's the little wizard waving his wand over this
whole alchemic brew; at point it comes off like a digital
retelling of his classic Ruth Is Stranger Than Richard,
other times there are elements of most of his other works.
1998 has been a very busy year for Robert Wyatt. The U.K.
release of Shleep finally landed in the U.S., thanks to
Thirsty Ear. Additionally, Hannibal/Ryko in the U.K. are
readying most of the Wyatt back catalog for reissue on
CD (likewise to follow shortly thereafter in the U.S..,
again on Thirsty Ear).
THIS INTERVIEW WAS CONDUCTED ON JANUARY 6,1998.
Popwatch - You play trumpet on your new record, Shleep.
Robert - Yeah.
Have you played trumpet on any of your prior records?
I don't think I ever did, although I seem to remember
playing a trumpet mouthpiece solo, an imitation Roy Eldridge
trumpet mouthpiece solo, on an ancient thing of Daevid
Allen's about being an Australian, called "Fred The
Fish," in about 1966. I always played mouthpiece
at home and I studied it a bit at school, but I didn't
like the music I was being taught and I couldn't really
read the little dots. So I dropped the lessons and, in
fact, left school when I was about 16 altogether. Long
before I was even singing, the ultimate sound in my head
that a human could make was Miles Davis with a mute. That's
always been my favorite sound in the world. And now all
my heroes on the trumpet are dead... I just wanted to
remind myself of some of the sounds of the trumpet. That
was all really.
Does this make you approach composition of melody a
I think possibly because that was what I was listening
to that that's what comes out a bit. I'm not a singer
that is obviously influenced by singers. I don't even
think about the art of singing, really, when I'm singing.
I'm thinking about the notes. And when I think about notes
I think about the musicians I like rather than any particular
singers. Although I've got to enjoy some singers more
It definitely sounds like your took your time on this
new record and really worked it quite a bit, using editing
techniques and other studio features that really aren't
on a lot of your other records.
That's right. It's just that the circumstances were there,
basically. It was just a nice atmosphere being in a studio
run by a musician, who's an old friend as well you know...
and he helped. We were just able to go back and rework
How long did it take you to record this album?
Well, the actual recording time... I work pretty fast,
but it was spread out. I would do a couple of days recording
and then take the tapes home for sometimes a week or two
or more. It was over a year ago... for maybe a couple
of months. About a year ago (1/97-ed.) I was right in
the middle of it I suppose
How was it working with Brian Eno in 1997?
Just the same! He hasn't changed at all. He's just so
fast in the studio. All the particular things that I'm
illiterate about... which is like what the little buttons
on the machine do and so on... he's quick and fast and
Perhaps he's even quicker and faster now. He gets so quickly
to what he wants to do. He doesn't spend hours thinking,
"Maybe we can do this." He sort of hears something
and calculates an appropriate response, such as the kind
of dripping water sound on track two; he got that in minutes
really, from hearing the track, and it just goes so well
with the cymbal. He just seems to be able to make the
machine do it. Whereas other people can do these things
but they take hours to find the place on the machine.
It's an interesting combination, putting Brian Eno
and Evan Parker together.
Well they're from completely different disciplines. Not
just different dialects but different languages almost.
But they're both very interested in the idea of not relying
on musical clichés or at least making their own
Evan Parker being a huge, huge
European sax giant.
He is indeed. I think he is one of the few non-American
musicians from the jazz tradition who's made a distinct
contribution that you could say is not just participating
in the American tradition.
There are a few, like Django Reinhart, and I think he is
one of those in my opinion.
You work with Paul Weller on the new record as well.
He was recording anyway, on and off, in Phil's studio, and
I left him a little note saying hello really. He said if
I needed any strumming on any songs that he'd be happy to
give it a try.
There were a couple of tunes, particularly the one by Mark
Kramer which I'd altered a bit, "Free Will and Testament,"
and then the sort of Bob Dylan blues thing at the end, which
is really just a blues with slightly altered changes. He
just seemed to feel very comfortable with those. He really
worked hard. I was very grateful because he was right in
the middle of doing his own trio LP, Heavy Soul. It would've
been perfectly acceptable had he said, "I can't think
about anything else right now," but he loves to play
as long as it's serious. He doesn't like fucking about,
he likes to get on with it. I was very honored that he spent
the time for me.
You play with some other old friends on Shleep. Phil
Manzanera makes an appearance.
Yeah, he does. He was sort of hovering about discreetly...
because he knows the studio so well. He also knows my music
better than I do. We have a mutual friend in Bill MacCormick,
the bass player I used to work with. I think they were school
friends, they had a group together before I knew either
of them. So he knows what I do and he knows what his studio
does. He didn't intrude in any way, but he was discreetly
extremely helpful and just made things easier. And he played,
of course, on the only track that I really wrote with Alfie...
that Alfie was part of the actual writing of the song in
the first place, which was " Alien." He played
on that. Alfie is very happy with that solo, which is good
because that was a very important track for us. It's something
of an innovation in the sense that it was a real collaboration.
I mean, the word collaboration is used a lot, but that was
a real one.
Was Alfie in the studio when you recorded that?
Yeah. She actually sort of wrote what the voices ought to
be like. She wanted that effect of accumulating strands,
not in terms of just a choir effect but of loose, accumulating
strands getting slightly denser towards the end. She mixed
the vocals and got the sound on each one... sometimes she
would have a bit of treatment on one word and take it off
the next word. It was very much her project as well as mine
and then Phil just put the icing on the cake.
You work quite a bit with
Alfie on this record.
Yeah, that's right. Well this, in common with the last recording,
she wrote about half the lyrics as well as ideas on the
musical side of how to do things.
You play with another old friend, trombonist Annie Whitehead.
It's funny, because when people think about the musicians
I work with they tend to think about the people in the groups
I was in when I was a drummer.
But in fact, a lot of the people I know best are musicians
that I've known, really, since that period. Since the 7Os
in particular... from being around the little jazz clubs
in London. Annie, like Evan Parker, spent a lot of time
with the African musicians I knew - Dudu Paquan and so on
- and that's really how we became friends. We did actually
record together once, on Jerry Dammers' recording, but I
just really like her. The thing is that she's also a composer
and arranger and I really wanted somebody who could think
a bit Mingus and not just play a solo.
Is writing lyrics something you've had difficulty with
on the past couple records?
Funny... none of the things I am, like being a singer or
a songwriter, I never really planned to be any of these
things. I'm still surprised that that's what I seem to be
and I'm amazed that I still do it. It really surprises me
when I write any songs at all - not that I don't write more.
I'm really grateful to Alfie though. She doesn't write lyrics
as lyrics, apart from "Alien"; she actually writes
them as autonomous little pieces and I tend to just steal
things from her poetry notebooks and sketchbooks and so
on. And that's very useful to me. I have difficulty very
often, working from words to music... that way around...
but in the case of Alfie's things, I've been through a lot
of what she writes about with her. Apart from "Pa in
Madrid" which was, of course, a trip she took with
her own father to Madrid. So I find I can empathize very
closely with what she writes. I mean, I was with her when
the swallows disappeared into the sky. I've watched swifts
with her. I've seen the same little sparrow underneath the
postbox. So it's easy for me to write tunes for that.
There are a couple of thematic strings
running through Shleep, one being sleep and another being
Yeah. That's right.
Is it a concept album?
No, absolutely not. A concept album suggests a predetermined
plan, and if anything I think less and less about what I'm
doing as I get older. I'm working more on a kind of infantile
instinct level... just doing what feels right and alive.
I used to be much more theoretical than I am now. I've done
my, sort of, theoretical homework and I know what I think,
and I don't even think about what I think about anymore.
And so it's other people's guess, really, as to how these
images resonate. Their guess is as good as mine.
Are you thinking in terms of recording another album
Well, I've got bits of more material. It's a question of
not recording more than I can deal with at any one moment
because I like to tackle each song in its own right. Each
song might require quite a different treatment so I don't
want to get into sort of a factory process thing. I've noticed
that with even some musicians that I really like, especially
on the CDs, they just go on and on and on and you feel like
after about a half an hour that that whole way of doing
things is sort of starting to repeat itself too much and
I don't want to do that. So I keep material back. But I've
been asked to do a couple of things for other people which
I'll get out of the way first... before I get back on
to the next thing.
It seems like you're an ideal artist for 7" records.
It's too bad they've gone away.
What do you mean, like singles and things?
Exactly. Like the series of singles you made for Rough
Well it's funny that you should say that. Rough Trade has
a singles club, which is a just a subscription-only thing,
where they issue one single a month on vinyl with a proper
packet. A couple of months ago they... although I'm not
on Rough Trade anymore... Geoff Travis at Rough Trade asked
me and Hannibal Records if they could use a couple of tracks
of mine for one of their singles. They used "Free Will
and Testament" and on the other side they put an earlier
piece, one of Alfie's things, "Sight of the Wind"
from Dondestan. And it was just as a single just for their
club, so it was nice to see that. It was very nostalgic.
In the 50s, when I was a lad, you got jazz on singles. There
were Thelonious Monk singles let alone more obviously commercial
things like Art Blakey and Cannonball Adderly and Joe Zawinful
and that kind of thing - you know before Weather Report
he was working with Cannonball - and that merged into some
kind of Nina Simone and Ray Charles stuff and the soul records.
And the best jukeboxes in London... I just loved them for
that and I do miss that.
Do you have any other thoughts on the album?
Only that there are things that I would now do differently.
Brian, for example, sang on the first track, and now listening
to it I would have his voice equal up with mine when he
comes in. And I regret the fact that I don't think my voice
is quite good enough on its own in the verses. That's the
thought I have on that! It's a very simple point but there's
a couple of little bits like that, and I'm also a bit worried
about my drumming as I get older. Having heard some of my
drumming 20 years ago I'm not sure how long that I can get
away with it.
I think you can get away with it for a little while longer.
(Laughs) Thank you.
Has drumming affected your health at all? I hear Rashid
Ali has quite bad tendonitis.
Oh, goodness me. I know Jerry Dammers has that. That's a
terrible curse for musicians. I've heard there are some
ways of dealing with it, but... that would be a nightmare.
No, I don't have any problem with that. I think that what
the real problem is - it's an obvious thing about being
a paraplegic really, or maybe it's not so obvious - even
if you're just keeping time with your right hand there's
something about squeezing the hi-hat with your left foot
which keeps your whole body at one. You know, working as
a single (piece of) athletic machinery. Whereas when you're
just working with your hands, even like playing bass drum
by hand on overdubs of the song, it's harder to get that
organic unity in the playing. It's as simple as that really.
You seem to regret a lot of the decisions you've made.
Well, some people are very good at the actual craft of living.
I seem to spend a lot of time at the wrong place at the
wrong time. Or trying to be harmless and actually fucking
people up a bit, like Alfie's career for example.
No, really, I feel very uneasy and I think it's because
I just can't work it out. There are moments, especially
when I sing on other people's records, say, Hapless Child,
or more recently for John Greaves (a bass player here in
Europe), that if I just did one thing then I could really
get around that. But when I'm working on things then I try
to think like a drummer or a keyboard player or a composer
or a word writer and then I'm just not sure what I'm meant
to be. And I've got an awful feeling that just 5 minutes
before the end I'll suddenly realize which one I should
be (laughs). How I should have approached it all. I wish
we could have a test run - it's an old cliché, I
know. I just feel like we're all in a play on a stage but
nobody's given us a script and there are about eight directors
going around shouting out different instructions. And nobody
knows who's supposed to be on the stage and who is supposed
to be off it, and that's life (laughs).
If we could, I'd like to discuss some of your early band
history. Did the Daevid Allen Trio actually participate
in a multimedia event with Brion Gysin and William S. Burroughs
I can't remember that! The thing is there was a lot of interest
around jazz and poetry, that is, poetry, music and effects
and other general things in the early 60s when I was in
school. We got involved with various multimedia events but
I don't ever remember doing anything with Burroughs, certainly.
Daevid himself may very well have done so... he got around
a lot more. I was just having left school and kind of not
knowing what to do then. Daevid himself may have gotten
in much more. I mean he was always moving around a lot.
Going back and forth from Paris and Australia and all kinds
of things. But, no. I consider that period just as an apprenticeship,
in terms of what we were doing, more of a learning period
really. It was like going to a school. Instead of going
to university, because I couldn't afford a proper university
with proper things, I went to a kind of culture university
with people like Daevid.
The next band, The Wilde Flowers, seems to take a step
back. They were more rhythm and blues based.
The Hopper Brothers were very locally based, in a way that
I had never ever been in my head. You know, they were born
and went to school and lived in one town. And they had a
group that played in that town and they used to play, you
know, material of the day that was on the charts that was
do-able, and quite a lot of soul stuff as well. There again
I was surprised, really, because I didn't used to live around
there that often. When I had left them Brian had being trying
to learn some Cannonball Adderly kind of thing on the saxophone
and Hugh had been learning Charlie Haden things on bass...
I came back and they were playing Chuck Berry tunes and
I was as surprised as anybody! It was good fun drumming,
and also socially it was a way of getting out of just playing
in people's front rooms and sitting out in the hall. To
get to play in public was a most incredible youthful discipline,
and to play for dances, even more so.
Your next band was the Soft Machine. Obviously there's
bad blood there.
I'm not going to go on about that, don't worry. I'd just
like to say for the record that when things wind up badly
it's difficult to recapture the hope and excitement that
came before that, because it gets tainted.
How many times did Soft Machine tour America?
I don't know. We spent most of 1968 in America, following
Hendrix around. ln the middle we did a few gigs on our
own and Andy Summers came out and joined us for a little
What was his role in the Soft Machine?
He just joined us on guitar about halfway through for
a few weeks. I think he was on his way to the west coast,
basically, because he had some friends in the Animals.
Andy himself had been in a band called Zoot Money Big
Roll Band - more or less a kind of a big band soul outfit.
And, if fact, he had been the first person to be generous
towards us in an interview in the press in England. He
was interested in trying different things, away from just
being a rhythm guitarist, so he joined us for a bit but
he stayed, of course, out on the west coast.
There was another guitarist for the Soft Machine for
a while, Larry Nolan.
He was an American lad. He was a very nice bloke... used
to write words for songs. Yeah, I think it was sometime
in the mid-60s, but he went back to America. In the end,
with the guitar business... we never found a way with
guitars. The main thing people seemed to have around that
time seemed to be built around the guitar, whereas the
music we were making and arranging didn't seem to be comfortable
for guitarists. Which is why in the end we didn't have
How did the work on Picasso's play come about?
I can't really remember that. It could have been one of
Daevid's Paris connections. It's simply where artistic
Paris spends its summer and they would all organize various
things, though it wasn't all French people down there.
There were a lot of Americans there who I didn't know
very much about. In fact, Taylor Mead and other people
around the New York Andy Warhol circuit seemed to be down
there as well. I loved Taylor Mead, he was a great man,
very funny... and some other people. It was just that
they needed music. We had already done music at the Fringe
Edinburgh festival for "Ubu Roi," an Alfred
Jarry play, and they wanted musicians that were comfortable
outside the regular song format.
Did Soft Machine compose new material for that?
Yes. Yes, we did.
Did that ever get recorded?
I shouldn't think so. Mostly we played on a beach, in
a big dome - a temporary structure that was built. A geodesic
dome built by Keith Alban, right next to a German beer
festival, I remember. That was a bizarre pairing. We had
no money, we were just sleeping around on the beach, I
think, half the time. Which you can just about do in summer
at the south of France.
Could you put the Soft Machine into perspective for
someone who's never heard them?
The thing is... I wouldn't use the word "rock"
really. I would say that as a basis we used actual pop
song type music. When you think of rock you think of a
blues-based guitar, sort of getting heavier and heavier,
based in rhythm and blues, and I don't think we were really
anything to do with that. I think we were people who like
improvising endlessly on fragments of pop songs. That's
really what it was, that's the odd combination.
And huge volume.
Oh, it got very loud, yeah. Did you ever hear Lifetime,
Tony Williams's band with Larry Young?
I sure have.
It seems like that was the kind of thing that happened
around that period. In 1968 our rather steep learning
curve - if I can use that very modern cliché - came
from having to open for Jimi Hendrix every night. If you're
playing in front of an audience of thousands of people
who are restlessly waiting for perhaps the greatest rock
performer of all time (laughs), they really get impatient
unless you come up with something. It knocks the whimsy
out of you and you really have to get tough and strong
and get on with it. And so, after a year with Hendrix,
certainly, that tended to be our approach.
Let's talk about Matching Mole.
Certainly there's some similar ideas to the Soft Machine,
but movement in a different direction.
That's right. Yeah, certainly from my point of view. I wanted
to carry on playing drums and I was always looking for friends
to play with. In the end, to be honest, I don't think I
ever found somebody to play with. It may be my fault as
a drummer, maybe I'm not playable with. Maybe I was never
meant to be a drummer. As I'd said, at the end of my life
I'll suddenly say "I wasn't meant to be a drummer"
and the whole thing will make sense, but anyway... What
I was pleased about was that we managed to record a couple
LPs on which we got a lot of ideas that I had, and which
the others had - Dave McRae, Dave Sinclair, and Bill (MacCormick).
It was very democratic in a sense, but with the LPs in particular,
the first Matching Mole record, I was able to anticipate
what I was going to have to do later on my own on keyboards
by doing so much Mellotron on the thing because it was in
the studio. It gave me a better grasp on some of the harmonic
implications of some of the tunes I was trying to write.
This was aIso the first appearance of your politicaI
Well I suppose so... in joke form anyway. Although funny
enough, I think there's a couple Soft Machine songs where
I refer to... I don't know what I was trying to say... "If
I were black and I lived here I would want to be (a big
man) in the CIA or the FBI." I don't know what that
was about. I've always thought about these things.
The politicalization actually coincided with getting to
know Alfie. And when I got to know Alfie, there were things
around her flat which I had never seen before. Newspapers
called the Workers Press and so on (laughs). Alfie's father
had been a professor of Libriarianship and had set up Libraries
in Trinidad and Nigeria. Between them, they were able to
show me the other side. To me black culture had always been
another aesthetic phenomena, like Picasso and his sculpture.
I was just very grateful for what I consider the main ingredient
to make the 20th century culture distinctive, which was
the black contribution. In terms of all the music I'd heard
- be it Bartok or Buddy Holly - the music that really struck
me as having both the emotional and intellectual weight
that I wanted was, in the end, Coltrane. So I'd always had
this feeling of great gratitude to black culture and more
and more, particularly in England... England really invented
Apartheid, we distance ourselves from it superficially.
Apartheid was a very European phenomenon, funny enough,
and there were a lot of Africans who made us aware of that.
Somehow you couldn't reconcile the enormous debt to black
culture with the general way that black people were being
treated politically and economically. You couldn't tally
it. You couldn't reconcile it. It was via politics that
I opted to try and make sense of that.
Do you continue to do that?
Yes, I do. I would say of all the illuminations of the way
I think, the most consistently bright light in the dusty
little attic of my brain is based on a few Marxist insights
into the nature of power and economics - of who wields it
and why. I'm not talking about a failed attempt to do anything
about it. I'm simply talking about an analysis of how the
world runs. The political analysis helps to sweep away some
of the mystification which tends to be used by some of the
conservatives to disguise what they are doing in the name
of the church and patriotism and the family and all this
sort of thing.
Let's jump ahead a couple years to Robert Wyatt the Rough
Trade artist and your fierce political agenda of that time.
To me it is very interesting how the politics of the
80s finally played out.
Well, that would be true of any period. It would also be
true of the 60s for me how that played out. Things have
their life span. As I say, it's one thing that's really
stayed with me. But it's just as you don't have to be a
gospel singer if you're a Christian but you might make a
few gospel records when you become involved in the first
place, then it might just imbue the rest of your life. And
I think this has happened with me with my political stuff.
People always think reactionary means right wing reactionary;
but I think I would call myself a left wing reactionary,
that is to say, as harsh as the climate seems to be in terms
of right wing ideas being sold around and being considered
culturally accept able. I feel the need, not as a missionary
or indeed to communicate at all, but just for my own mental
well being, to kind of correct the balance in my own work.
So during the harshest period of Reaganomics and Cold War
banalities, I felt the need to verify my own separateness
from the actions of my own government at the time. As long
as there was some form of alternative going on in the world,
I would look hopefully at any of these developments. Of
course, in the meantime, NATO and the World Bank Organization
have won the Cold War. There is no one posing a serious
challenge to the western victory in the Cold War. I'm not
a revolutionary in the sense of starting something on my
own. I can support people who are trying - and in there
are people still resisting, I'm always very sympathetic.
But the reality at the moment is the Cold War is over and
our side lost.
I'm going to give you the names of some people you've
worked with. If you could, give me a word or two about them.
There's a lot, so if you get bored tell me to stop.
(Note from the ed. - OK, so the two-word
answer wasn't such a great idea. It took Robert one name
before he expanded his answers to a length that would give
these folks some justice.)
This is not one word stuff you know. I feel like - and this
is presumptuous - he feels like an alter ego to me. Someone
I might have been. He was exactly the same age as me and
he was 32 when he died. I almost feel like what I've read
that twins feel when a twin dies. Not that I was that close
to him but that's the feeling I had musically.
Well I thought he was an extremely good songwriter and singer
and I was very happy playing on Madcap Laughs, although
he left the credits off because we were only practicing
in the studio when he recorded it and he didn't want to
embarrass us by putting our names on such a shambles, but
I thought it was very witty. People think, "Was he
mad?" "Was he crazy?" - and I didn't think
that at all. A lot of people were crazy, but not Syd.
He's the only session musician I can think of offhand who
kept his soul.
Laurie Allen's a great friend. There again - Alfie knew
him before I did. And he used to play with the South African
musicians with Chris MacGregor quite a lot. And he was the
first person I thought of when I couldn't play drums. He
would play what I would have wanted to play.
Kevin Ayers wrote perfectly formed songs right from the
beginning. He didn't seem to have to learn how to do it.
But I think he puts himself down too much. I've heard him
say "The group got too clever/ jazzy/intellectual for
me." He was very much one of the main minds behind
the innovations and fresh ideas for new things that we were
doing in the late 60s. I think one of the reasons he never
became a pop star was he just had too many other ideas to
obtain in the pop format.
Oh, Nick Evans... I think he's a math teacher now. He might
even have been then. He's just a totally friendly jovial
Welshman - and being slightly Welsh myself I'm quite happy
about that - and a lovely trombonist. His big hero was Roswell
Rudd, which is fairly appropriate.
Lol Coxhill is a wonderful musician. I've heard him, I'm
sure, playing tenor. I asked him about that and he says
"Oh no, no I don't do that." He's a very lyrical
player and there again - he's a very good friend. When people
are friends it's hard to say an objective thing like a critic
might want or you as a writer might want. I mean, it was
in his home that Alfie stayed when I was in hospital in
1973 because he lived in the same town as the hospital.
He was so poor then. It's incredible - this man bringing
up his two children on his own. You know that there's an
old saying, "Those who have least give most,"
and in terms of material possessions Lol definitely qualifies
for that remark.
Well, Jerry Dammers is someone I really miss. He's one of
the people who was actually in the rock star industry who
really did it consciously and did the right thing but kept
it stylish, like Paul Weller. There is a way of doing that.
You don't have to become a pranny. I think he put so much...
he took his stuff so seriously that every penny he made
went into things like Nelson Mandela's birthday party thing
that he organized here - a massive concert with Harry Belafonte
and so on. He really meant all that stuff and he got kind
of lost in it.
I would like him to reemerge and play some more, because
I'd hate to think... He's too young to die, you know? In
fact Carla Bley said to me... when I was feeling old...
she says, "Oh you've got to keep playing. Who do you
think you are a fucking rock star?" (Laughs). I'm talking
about Jerry, you know. He's too good to stop.
Oh, John Cage... the two interesting things about him that
I recall... One was his interest in mushrooms, and I've
since acquired a great interest in the biology of mushrooms
as a kind of missing link between animals and plants in
the sense that they can 't live directly off the earth.
That might seem irrelevant to you. The other interest, I
believe, was chess. In both cases they're studies which
require meticulous indexing. A sort of scientific rigor
in studying them - the very same characteristics he led
the way in throwing aside in music. I think it's funny that
he should still have this love of discipline and indexing
but he stripped it away from music.
You have to be very disciplined with mushrooms.
(Laughs) Exactly, you can't be vague with a mushroom. You
have to know what you've got there. (Laughs)
Well Gary was just a lovely tenor player really. I think
he was quite unlike the musicians who were around in England,
he was much more like the Americans and, I suppose, the
African musicians in England. Although he was English, the
fact that he had spent a long time in the States... for
example, he played with Wayne Shorter's brother, a trumpet
player in various jazz things, and was very much part of
the post-Albert Ayler generation. Really, that wasn't happening
in England at that time. The jazz musicians in England were
more, I don't know, just not that anyway... much more academic.
As a consequence of that I've really got on very good with
English jazz musicians, and indeed I can't think of many
who would work with me anyway because I would be considered
too primitive. But not by Gary, and I'm grateful to him
You know, I think he's in some kind of hospital thing in
America right now. He's been very ill recently, so I have
thought about him in the last few years. He's a great drummer,
very important. Hendrix benefited a great deal from having
Mitch. I remember Mitch and I used to listen to a drummer
who was actually a couple of years younger than both of
us but we felt of as a kind of a mentor nonetheless - Tony
Williams. The stuff he was doing when Miles was making the
transition from the earlier forms of jazz to the later ones
that he did. The fact that Mitch had that stuff in his mind
and knew about it, as well as the more John Bonham heavy
rock thing that the English drummers were doing around that
time, made him really perfect for Hendrix. That also gave
me confidence to move around the kit a bit in a way that
I subsequently didn't.
Well, Bill... yeah. He was a very good bass player. He didn't
play like a bass player, really. He didn't seem to play
the sort of things bass guitarists are likely to play. He
didn't really have a normal bass guitar sound at the time,
but I found his playing very bright and imaginative. He
was always trying to get the most out of things. He was
very good company to have around at the time when we were
very, well, destitute really, and things weren't working
out. Things never worked out with Matching Mole, but he
was always good fun and cheerful and that kept us going.
He's just an extremely good organ player. It seemed very
difficult at the time for players, especially people playing
the Hammond, to find a way of playing that wasn't simply
based on the Jimmy Smith or Booker T way of playing it.
I think that some of them who did play that way were wonderful,
and in England there were Georgie Fame and Zoot Money who
did so and very well indeed. But he found another way...
much more pastoral, a much more European sound and harmonic
sensibility which fitted the tunes I was working on at the
time perfectly, and I'm very grateful for that.
Daevid. Ah, yeah. Now that's a difficult one. That's really
a long way back. My father didn't approve of him, really,
when he stayed at our house when I was a teenager. I think
the main thing was that he provided an escape route for
me from school, of which I was a total failure. He was a
lot older than us, certainly a lot older than me. And in
the early 60s, maybe even the late 50s, he got a houseboat
in Paris and I went and stayed with him there and got a
taste of what was then the underground focused around Paris
and the jazz musicians there. Various pre-psychedelic people
like Brion Gysin and so on. He opened some doors. The official
doors of schooling had been a total failure in my life,
so Daevid did show me there are whole other worlds out there
to make. You don't have to worry about being a failure in
Daevid is going to be 60 this year.
I think he always was, wasn't he? He always seemed like
he had that guru thing.
I think the real thing about Phil was that he really liked
to work on a harmonic thing and chords and so on on his
guitar, and I think that really the most appropriate things
done with Phil was when he had actually wrote the pieces
for which I was able to write songs. It was one of those
periods when I was torn between being a drummer and a singer
in that sense... in the Mole... and I could do it both on
record. Things like the tune "God Song," which
enabled me to write a song that really meant a lot to me
to write, and I couldn't have done it without his music
suggesting the phrasing. I would have liked to have pursued
that side of it more rather than the live things we were
trying to do.
He was a school friend from the age of 10 or 11, I suppose.
I've always enjoyed singing his tunes, he himself doesn't
sing. He has a harmonic slant on things that I've always
found very compatible with the way I sing. And of course
I'm still singing some of his songs. On Dondestan I sang
a tune of his, I think it's "Left on Man"; and
there again on this LP, "Was A Friend" is a Hugh
Hopper tune. That must be the longest-running musical association
I've ever had, as sparse as it is these days.
Oh, Carla's great! This morning I was just listening to
a record, actually by her daughter, her and Mike Mantler's
daughter, Karen Mantler. I love that record. I've got an
LP and a CD by Karen and one of the things is that Karen
has learned so much from her mother - the throwaway irony
of the lyrics, and the meticulously interesting harmonic
developments - she hates a boring harmonic progression and
always puts a little angle in there with a kind of dry wit.
It's a family trait, I think. Carla was very, very funny
to work with. She said, "You have to be tough, if you
run a band in New York you've got to be tough." And
indeed she was extremely tough, and you could see why. She
was very , very witty and had extremely sensible ears. Her
father apparently was a piano teacher. She was Swedish -
her name was Carla Borg before she married Paul Bley. I
had to sing a John Cage song once and it was she who taught
me what the notes were.
Ah, yes. Well, I can't think of very much there. Too much
blood has flown under the bridge.
A wonderful bloke. He kept his enthusiasm going all the
time when I met him. There again, like Jerry Dammers, he
didn't become a blasé supercilious rock star. I've
never known anybody with such wide-ranging tastes that he
actually did something about. He would work with the Brodsky
String Quartet, he would get Chet Baker into the studio,
he tried his hand at country music. He was just awestruck
by the whole business of music and being allowed to participate
A very, very nice man.
I spoke to her about 2 days ago. Of course I've sung a couple
of her tunes written with Chris Cutler. I liked all of those
musicians very much from the Henry Cow setup, and she was
always very inventive in that genre of playing, and a good
bassoon player. But you know she's very ill now. I don't
know if you knew that.
Yeah. She has multiple sclerosis and, in fact, she's
had it for apparently 10 years. She just didn't want to
face it herself. And then she decided to sort of say it
because she was having such difficulty doing anything. So
she's now, as it were, come out with it and has let it be
known, so it's alright for me to tell you. I'm very pissed
off about that because she can't really function as she
did at all.
There's a side of Fred that I would have really brought
out more. I would have really liked to worked with Fred
in a group. I think that if I had found him earlier we could
have been in a late 60s group together somehow. Some sort
of Henry Machine or Soft Cow or something.
(Laughs) Because there's something wistful about meeting
someone I felt so compatible with, almost at the end of
my career as a drummer or as a group musician. But still,
I enjoyed singing with their band, and now particularly
I'm having to listen through lots of stuff of mine because
it's being reissued by Ryko, and some of it's lasted better
than others. At the moment some of the stuff I most enjoy
is the duet with him on piano doing his tune "Muddy
Mouse/Muddy Mouth" on an LP I did called Ruth is Stranger
Than Richard in the mid-70s. It's just wonderful how lyrical
it is. He could easily have any kind of career apart from
the, kind of, post-Derek Bailey career he has chosen.
Blimey, I haven't heard that name for a long time. There's
the brothers of course, him and Jimmy Hastings, the saxophone
player. He was a fine musician. He was never amateurish
in the way he played guitar. He didn't seem to go through
that period like the rest of us went through, I think, perhaps
having an older brother who was a superbly schooled musician.
Actually, there's a session musician who never lost his
soul - another one to add to the short list - his older
brother. But I haven't heard from Pye or had any contact
with him for decades.
Oh! Brian Eno... well, yeah. just a good friend - really
helpful. What can I say? He's helped me out of some difficult
things. Like a couple of years ago all the microphones I'd
had for 20 years, they all started to pack up, and it was
Brian who sent me a permanent loan of really good new ones
for me to work at home on. Things like that. So he's not
just knowledgeable, he's sort of generous like that. He
likes to help things happen.
Elton. Well, the thing is... I remember hearing him with
Keith Tippett's band and asked if I could borrow their front
line for the group in 1968 or 1969. But it was, in fact,
him that got me kicked out of the Soft Machine because he
didn't like the singing, I don't think, and he didn't like
the more heavy side of my drumming. He wanted that sort
of free jazz thing. Well, I had been listening to free jazz
in the late 50s and early 60s and I didn't want to do that
again. But he got the others to out-vote me and to get rid
of me. So there again, it's a bit similar to the previous
question about the organist.
Yeah, well, drummers often become friends with drummers
of different groups... and there's no exception there. The
Pink Floyd did a benefit concert for us when I had my accident,
and sort of to return the favor - I mean, I couldn't return
the favor - but I invited Nick to sort of produce Rock Bottom
and we became good friends at that time, him and his wife,
Lindy. We used to go see them and we developed some mutual
friends like Carla Bley and Mike Mantler, who we also did
things with later, and in fact when they did a record together,
called Fictious Sports, they asked me to sing the tunes,
and I really enjoyed doing that. It was very nice to be
on their record and to just sing something without having
the responsibility for the rest of the band.
Well, Mike got us to sing... I think Carla sent him a copy
of Rock Bottom and said "Here's a singer we can use."
I don't really know how it happened, but that gave me the
opportunity to sing with the most transcendental rhythm
section I could have imagined which was Jack Dejohnette
on drums, Steve Swallow on bass, and Carla Bley on piano.
I doubt if I'll ever work with a better group than that.
Evan Parker is one of the few European musicians who've
taken an extended line of late Coltrane and turned it into
a whole new thing... both on tenor and soprano saxophone.
Although with his music he sticks very firmly to a serious
line of approach. He himself is a very eclectic listener.
Which is why I didn't feel too nervous about asking him
to play on my record.
What can I say? She's sitting here. (Laughs) Well, we've
been together since the early 70s - I think that, really,
we are a group. People think I've been in two groups, but
in fact I've been in three. The longest lasting one, the
one that's really worked, has been me and Alfie. In every
possible way. And when I say every possible way that's exactly
what I mean. So, there you are.
While it may be perfectly clear to
many people who Robert Wyatt is, far fewer have a clear
understanding exactly who Alfreda Benge is. Before you even
listen to a Robert Wyatt album you first have an impression
created by the accompanying art. From the debut underwater
seascape of Rock Bottom to the dry abstract expressionist
deserts of Old Rottenhat and Work In Progress right through
to the ultimate slumber/dream accompaniment of his excellent
current endeavor, Shleep - all have had superbly executed
visual echoes of Robert's musical worlds, and all were created
by Alfie Benge.
Sadly, in pursuit of the bigger picture, Alfie has let credit
slip where credit is due; many of the older CD issues of
Robert Wyatt albums feature little or no documentation as
to where the source art originated. Hopefully, this will
deservedly be rectified by the current spate of reissues
by Hannibal/Ryko/Thirsty Ear. If not, perhaps this will
help shed some more light on the subject.
I didn't ask Alfie if she has done other interviews, but
you can bet that she probably hasn't done very many...
PW - You've done illustrations
for a children's book?
Alfie - Yeah. Two children's books, which are out
of print now. Ivor Cutler wrote the stories. Do you know
of Ivor Cutler who's on the end of Rock Bottom?
Yes. How did that come about? Did he approach you with
Yes. He suggested to his publisher that they see my paintings
and so I went along and showed them my work. I was going
to do four but, in fact, it took 6 months to do each of
them and in the end my eyes almost closed with straining
because they were so tiny... tiny paintings. I ended up
just doing the two: Herbert the Chicken and Herbert the
So he lined it up with the publisher.
Yes, he had worked with quite a few illustrators in the
past but they were usually ones that were known to the publisher,
so he suggested that I may be able to do it. He's a very
encouraging person. He gives people confidence; he tells
you you're wonderful and makes you believe you can do anything.
It was not what I'd been used to because obviously making
24 pages match each other and all of the people look the
same and inventing characters is not the same as doing one-off
paintings, but I was very pleased with them. I think they're
rather good. But like all these things, poor ducks, they
go off the shelves. I still get a few pennies every year
from libraries. So they exist somewhere, but they're unbuyable.
They don't exist anymore.
When did you do those?
Round about '82. The beginning of the 80s... and the next
one in '83 or something.
Did you do much illustration other than that?
Other stuff... yeah. I did a bit for a magazine called Time
Out... a few things. Obviously Robert's covers, a couple
of Fred Frith covers, an Annette Peacock cover... I was
trying to be a painter, so it wasn't a career that I was
after. I can only really do things if I can connect with
them. I mean, I couldn't do a cover for the Rolling Stones.
I'd have to know the person and know their inside really.
Have you made some films?
Well, I went to film school. I had a long art school history
- I did painting, then I did graphics, then
I went to film school. Obviously at film school I made films.
After I left school I had an extraordinary job called Films
Officer at IBM, which was a strange thing for me, and if
you knew me you'd think it was really strange. And then
I did a bit of editing here and there, just before Robert's
accident. In England, to work in big stuff at the time you
had television or industrial films and quite boring things.
I did do one film for the BBC at the end of my student days.
I was paid for a half hour thing. And then I got a job as
a third assistant editor, which is just basically writing
down numbers on "Don't Look Now," a Nick Roeg
film with Donald Sutherland and Julie Christie. But I was
just in the cutting room and that was going to get me my
union ticket which was quite hard to get in England at that
time. So it meant you were much freer to get good jobs.
That was in Venice - Robert came with me and wrote Rock
Bottom there. Not long afterwards he came back and had his
accident and I had to decide what to do... throw him in
the river or look after him. At first he wasn't as independent
and obviously needed looking after. So I thought the film
industry is a bit of a racket, really. I'll give it up...
and I hadn't done any painting for about 12 years and Robert
said "Why don't you do the Rock Bottom cover?"
and that started me back on painting, which I could do at
home. So I had meant to keep carrying on in the film industry
but gave it up. But last year I did a tiny, sort of, job
of rewriting some dialogue in an Aaron Rudolph film. Do
you know Aaron Rudolph?
He a sort of protégé of Robert Altman. Occasionally
I get dragged back to do little things, basically by Julie
Christie, who's my old friend, and she finds things that
she occasionally needs me for.
For Robert's covers, what one's have you done?
I've done everything since Rock Bottom except the "Shipbuilding"
cover. I remembered Stanley Spencer's wonderful painting
and thought nobody could do it better than that. And it
turned out we were able to use it for nothing so... apart
from that, I've done them all, except for the compilations
that have been out of our control
You've worked in a couple different mediums on his covers
too. On Nothing Can Stop Us it's some sort of graphic illustration.
It was just a pen drawing. Rock Bottom was pencil, Ruth
and Richard was gouache, and then the rest have been oils.
They're all oil paintings now. I did graphic design and
typography and that kind of stuff, so I really enjoy doing
things which are more abstract. Where you're using space
That's one half of what I can do and the other half is strange,
narrative pictures with people and stories and goings-on
in them. Also, I do very uncharacteristic charcoal drawings
which are quite... stronger.
I mean, I draw from life and I paint from my head, basically,
and the drawings don't look like mine at all. That's the
Do you paint specifically for a purpose or do you paint
for the sake of painting?
My dream would to be able to paint for the sake of painting
all the time, but life gets in the way most of the time...
either crisis or something else to do.
When Robert's working I'm also his manager, so I have
to do incredibly dull things like the accounts and arguing
about contracts, and I'm also his roadie, so I have to
get him from A to B. I'm also his nurse, and things in
the world happen which need shouting about and you have
to go about shouting, protesting about them. So, I get
dragged away from the idea of just painting. I mean, if
I had a wife I think I'd paint more, but I haven't got
I was very grateful to CBS, I have
to say, for the opportunity to go into the studio and make
an album. I don't think they realized that I was going to
make a totally improvised album like that, and I didn't
get invited back. One of the things that mucks up some of
the earlier memories is that we didn't get any more money
from those early records at all. None of them. Our managers
were total crooks and since they are dead I can name them:
Mike Jeffries and Chas Chandler. I mean they just took everything.
The record companies were no help, they seemed to close
rank with managers rather than see musicians go their dues.
In my real life I don't remember much peace and love in
the music industry era at all. Having said that, I was very
happy to have the chance to record, there again, to play
piano and do my little Cecil Taylor impersonations. I think
everybody should have a got at their Cecil Taylor impersonations.
In my mind, if I ever made a transition from adolescence
to adulthood it was by that record. People think it must
have been a very tragic period of my life, with breaking
my back and all, but 1974 was the happiest moment of my
life. The record came out, it came out how I wanted it to
come out, it was made with friends. Alfie married me on
the day it came out, which was a disgracefully self-sacrificial
thing of her to do, but made me feel great.
IS STRANGER THAN RICHARD
On that record I wanted to give the musician I was working
with more space to do their own thing. I set up "Team
Spirit" as a tenor solo for George Kahn.
And there again - I got Fred Frith to play some of his
own tunes - still some of the favorite things I've ever
recorded actually, "Muddy Mouse/Muddy Mouth."
In fact, before doing those tunes he played this note,
I can't remember what it was, some sort of high D or even
an E flat, and I said to Fred, "I can't sing that,"
and Fred says, "Yes, you can. Your range is from
a low F to a high F#." He listened to my records
and knew exactly what notes I'd hit on various records
and told me I could do it, so I had to do it.
This wasn't intended as an LP. Virgin
was very angry with me when I disengaged myself from them
and they threatened us not to make an LP or there would
be legal trouble. While Geoff Travis at Rough Trade was
trying to sort that out and placate Richard Branson, they
allowed us to make a few singles, which is what I did. And
it allowed me to sing some songs by people like Violetta
Parra and so on... that meant a lot to me. But I did them,
more or less, as a musical journalism. I didn't feel these
ideas had to last forever. It was Geoff Travis's idea to
put them together onto an LP.
THE ANIMALS FILM SOUNDTRACK
Julie Christie had been invited to do the narration on that
by Victor Shoenfield, who made the film. They had asked
the Talking Heads to do the music. They used one song of
the Talking Heads for the opening credit tracks and it cost
them 500 pounds. Well, since the budget for the whole film
was just a few thousand pounds they couldn't afford them
for the whole score. Julie said "I've got a friend
who'll do it for really cheap." And it's true; one
thing I'm really proud of is I work cheap. Geoff Travis
at Rough Trade once said "you may not be the most successful
or the best musician we've ever had here at Rough Trade,
but you're certainly the cheapest." And indeed, I did
the rest of the film score for 100 pounds. They wanted it
released to help publicize the film and that's what I did.
I think making music for films is very good because you
have to break out of the normal song cycle structure. The
structure is given to you by the film. There is a structure
but it's quite different and that makes you do things quite
differently. I know Miles Davis had the same breakthrough
when he did music for a French film, "Lift to the Scaffold."
I really appreciate how useful that would have been for
him when I was doing the Animals Film.
That was done when I was very isolated from other musicians,
although I felt very at home spiritually with the musicians
of that era, perhaps even more than with the musicians of
my generation. The post punk people in England who were
dealing in extraordinary surrealist combinations of punk and reggae and using
old ska rhythms. There was a lot of great political music,
like Jerry Dammers and, indeed, Paul Weller around that
time, but musically it was very different from me because
it was very guitar based and I come from quite a different
line of thought musically. So I found myself, more or less,
on my own and working as a kind of miniaturist there - just
trying to get distilled, pure song on it. And as political
as the songs are, the main exercise was really an aesthetic
one. To try and to get essential song. Just to see how you
could pare it down to that point. I'm also interested in
artists in other fields in that way. Whether it's Samuel
Beckett in writing or Mondrian in painting, it's a very
interesting exercise... to try and pair things down like
Dondestan was after we left London
and came to live up north of England, quite near the coast.
We had spent some time in the 8Os in Spain. England was
a difficult place to be, so we took any chance we could
to go away. Alfie had written quite a lot of poems in Spain.
I think there's something about sitting in a Spanish cafe
in an out of season holiday resort with a glass of brandy
in front of you which brings out a little poetry in Alfie's
soul. Especially with the flamenco posters on the wall.
So that provided the basis for Dondestan. One of the possible
titles for the LP was based on a Cuban film called "Memories
of Under Development (Memorias Su Desorio )," that
was nearly the title of the first track anyway, and a lot
of it has to do with that sense of underdevelopment and
dispersal. Not in the third world, but right among us.
I had a rough period in the mid/early
9Os, musically speaking, and there were some problems here
at home as well. I mean, I don't like people to go on about
their problems because it's boring... but I broke my legs
here in 1993 or 1994, I think, and had to spend some time
in the hospital. I fell out of my wheelchair... so those
kind of things delayed my activity somewhat. But as much
as I get the exact sound I want when I'm on my own I get
lonely, and music is a social act in the end. I was very
happy to be reminded of Phil's studio and I went because
it's near enough London where I can phone up people like
Annie Whitehead and Evan without feeling that they had to
spend 5 hours on a train to get to the studio. There again,
I started exactly the same as I did with Dondestan. Which
is, taking half a dozen pieces from Alfie's poetry notebooks
and working on the music from that and then carry on with
that momentum and finish it up myself.